May 15, 2013
By Frank Mercogliano
1 SID is the old school title of my position, Sports Information Director. The actual title is Assistant Athletic Director for Communications, because you have to make every title longer to sound more important. Guilty as charged.
2 Seriously, the previous basketball seasons at my other three schools were truly brutal. Eighteen seasons, one winning season…one. One. To make it worse…it was 15-14. That’s a low high-water mark).
3 The New York Islanders somehow winning game five in the Patrick Division semifinals in 1982 when down 3-1 late in the third takes the cake overall, if only because I was so emotionally invested as a fan at age 11.
4 This was my take at the time “Kendall what the h…whoa…hey it’s a two-point game. I also quickly thought of Brian Anderson of TBS who also called Milwaukee Brewers games who said after Drew Gordon hit a three-pointer against Louisville with 4.7 left that UNM had a “puncher’s chance”. That was my thought…we have a puncher’s chance. Also, that court was crazy with all the logos and markings and stripes and trapezoid key. Dizzying.”
5 I thought for sure they were throwing long, and one GMU player breaks toward the basket, and no one went with him for a step or two. Amazing in retrospect that GMU had two open guys and couldn’t find either of them. Cleveland also did a good job covering the first GMU guy that ran towards the ball denying that first option, which really led to the chaos that ensued.
6 Drew Adams and Craig Snow are both very much like me in that we are into the newer stats that are espoused on places like KenPom, such as points per possession (Offensive Efficiency) and rebounding percentage.
7 According to KenPom’s blog on 11.18.12 (http://kenpom.com/blog/index.php/weblog/entry/the_day_after_11.18.12), UNM had a 2.6% win probability down five with the ball at the time.
This is a new little summer series called “From the SIDelines”1, which will be in blog form taking a look
back at some of the newsy items and events of the past year from my perspective as the media person traveling with the basketball team, and the behind the scenes guy. Nothing crazy…no state secrets, but sort of a retelling of a game or an event from my view of things, as opposed to say the AP story, or Richard Stevens’ account of the events.
Now, coming from the previous schools I’ve been at, going 29-6 is amazing, and a season like that provides lots of fodder for this little project2. There were so many indelible moments in a season with 29 wins, it’s hard to figure out where to start, especially when you don’t want to be cliché and start at the beginning. I’d much rather start with the unbelievable, and if that’s the case, the only game it could possibly be was on November 18, three time zones away from the fantastic fans here in Albuquerque.
New Mexico 70, George Mason 69. The semifinals of the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. That game ranks as the most amazing comeback I’ve ever seen in person on the basketball court3. Just 12 seconds before the end of the game, the score was George Mason 69, New Mexico 64. That’s truly an epic comeback…one I hate admitting I didn’t see coming. Thankfully Kendall Williams put the “S” on his chest and willed us to a win that I truly believe kick-started the entire season.
The game was played at a weird time…4:07 p.m., making it the last game of the morning session. It was in a way a huge advantage for whichever team won, as the Connecticut/Quinnipiac game wasn’t going to get played until something like 10 p.m. that night, so the winner of this game got a lot of extra rest.
I remember it being a pretty even first half, with UNM never leading by more than three (once a dunk by Cameron Bairstow, once on a Demetrius Walker three-pointer), but a pair of free throws tied it at 28 at the half, and the second half was one of those halves where we just couldn’t get a lead on George Mason. At one point they had pushed the lead out to eight or so with 11 minutes left, and sitting there watching it was not the best of feelings. Cut to the chase and with 2:23 to go Alex buried a three and suddenly it’s 61-60 Mason and it’s like “here we go…winning time…”, but apparently, we had a ways to go.
I can distinctly remember (and it’s backed-up by the CBS Sports Network video) that we were down three and Alex got fouled on a three with no call (Cam tipped the rebound in to make it 63-62 George Mason) and then Tony Snell grazed Sherrod Wright on a three-pointer that went in with 53 seconds left, and the four-point play made it 67-62. The bench was not happy at the time, and it’s amusing to see it on the video, but as Coach Steve Alford is expressing his displeasure, it’s Kendall Williams who steps in to calm Coach down.
In the midst of all of this are two key plays that are sort of forgotten now, but were essential to the win. The first happened with 3:26 left, when after the final media time out, UNM forced George Mason to call timeout as they couldn’t inbound the ball under its own basket. That was the final time out that was in Paul Hewitt’s pocket, and it would certainly come back to haunt the Colonials. The other key play was after a turnover by UNM with 37 seconds left, Byron Allen of GMU missed the front-end of a one-and–one that would have put the Colonials up either six or seven. That was really big.
So Kendall dunks to cut it to three, and then Wright gets the lead back to 69-64 with two freebies with 11. 9 left. At that point, in a recollection of the events by new Head Coach Craig Neal, he was pretty succinct with me. I asked what he personally was thinking when the second free throw went in.
“I was thinking we are going to lose,” said Neal, never one to mince words. “I knew our guys were prepared for that type of situation, and we were prepared to play it out, and we had some guys a couple of good plays.”
“We never quit,” said Neal. “Our preparation over time helped our guys, because we practice those situations.”
Cue the craziness.
UNM inbounds, and for some reason, GMU doesn’t make Kendall pick the ball up (I remember thinking that was nice of them), and then he launched a 35-foot three-pointer from the “I” on the court markings4, and drilled it.
“Kendall made an unbelievable shot,” said Neal, who even recalling it to me had a bit of wonderment and astonishment as he recalled the play.
Looking back it really was a baffling shot, although he replicated it late in the loss to South Dakota State…twice in fact. The best part was he hit it, and instead of writing it down in my scorebook, I watched him. I had to watch the video eventually to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me, but he just walked over to the bench, a quick high-five, and it was like, OK, let’s get the ball back.
“The best thing was we had a timeout, so we could now deny it and not let them get a pass in,” said Neal. “I think all of our guys were prepared for that, either a steal or if they get it in, foul the guy, get the rebound on a free throw and go.”
It’s probably good to note here that this was just the third game of the season, and the third for our operations director Craig Snow. One of Snow’s jobs on the bench is to watch and see if during a timeout if there is a substitution. At that final time out, George Mason inserted a freshman, Patrick Holloway into the game.
It was Holloway who was going to inbound the ball for George Mason, who only needed really to get it in and hit two free throws to win. GMU lined up all its guys in the middle of the court in a line, and I remember thinking they were going to chuck it long5. Everyone goes in a different direction, and Holloway never sees the wide open guy under the basket, and without a timeout and not wanting a five-second call, he throws a pass that Kendall grabbed. I remember thinking ‘man this little gym is loud’. It was about to get louder.
Kendall dribbled and got the ball to Cleveland Thomas in the corner. Cleveland then found Tony Snell, who was open for just long enough. “Most freshmen would shoot that, but he made a great play and decision and found Tony on the wing,” said Neal.
I had no clue who Kendall passed the ball to, or who passed it to Tony, just that it went in the corner, as there were too many guys in front of me. Tony’s shot seemed overly high at the time, and video shows why. A defender recovered and got out to him and was right there, but Tony shot it over him and in with 1.8 left.
Neal said of the sequence, “You just practice and hope that you get in a situation like that, you don’t know when it’s going to come, but Kendall made a couple of big plays, Pancake made a great pass and Tony made a great shot.”
The aftermath was fun…a pretty joyous locker room, and the postgame interview session sure beat what I thought it was going to be just a few minutes earlier. Ironically, in the locker room afterwards, Assistant Coach Drew Adams gave me a look and we had one of our conversations centering on numbers6. He stated something to the effect of “when is the last time a team was down five in the last 15 seconds and won?”, or something to that effect.
In a bit of irony…I knew the answer, because South Dakota State pulled off nearly an identical comeback, down five to Marshall with 20 seconds left, getting a three, a missed one-and-one the other way, and then a three to win. There is nothing like a KenPom.com subscription7.
What folks don’t realize is this tournament was really instrumental in two ways. The first is that it really instilled a moxie into this team that no matter the circumstances, they can win. It really jump-started the 12-0 start. The other is the team had so little time to prepare for Connecticut, but the team was so focused and locked into the scouting report, what the coaches were doing, what they had seen on tape … it’s really a sight to behold. Drew Adams has a nice reputation as a recruiter, but his scouting reports and his ability to watch a team on tape and prepare a team for that opponent is probably the best I’ve ever seen, and that’s not taking anything away from our other coaches. Drew is just really good at it.
That short preparation ended up helping, at least in my mind, during the conference tournament. Not a lot of time for turnaround there either, but UNM was so prepared during the tournament.
Back to the GMU win, it set us up for an 11 p.m. game with Connecticut, which you would think means hey, you can sleep in, but everyone was up (including me) and in the staff room by 8 (the coaches were there well before 8…I was last one down). You know the rest of that tournament’s story…the team beat UConn, got into the rankings, and I did what I do…carry a trophy home on the airplane.
That’s my recollection of that game. Next “From the SIDelines” will be my thoughts on Kendall’s 46-point night, and a little behind the scenes look at the national cell phone media tour Kendall (and I) took after that game. If there are any other thoughts, ideas, or things that you think might make a good topic for “From the SIDelines”, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, on twitter @fmmercogliano, or at the official twitter page of Lobo Basketball, @UNMHoops. Give it a follow…I post lots of pictures and media news links there.
Ciao for now,